Mardi Gras from Both Sides of the Throw – Galveston, Texas

The Krewe of Babalu float

The Krewe of Babalu float

They say that “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” Well, for me to be a part of the Texas’ biggest Mardi Gras celebration, I had venture down to the island city of Galveston, which is roughly 45 miles south of downtown Houston and with a population of under 60,000.

It was even more important for this city to celebrate this year in wake of the destruction of Hurricane Ike last September, which was the third most destructive hurricane that’s hit this country.  The 173 year old city wasn’t going to let that spoil its annual Mardi Gras festivities, their 98th since 1867 (when Shakespeare’s King Henry IV was showcased).  Between 200,000 and 250,000 people kick up their heels in this Texas Gulf Coast city on an annual basis in which over 5 million beads are thrown out of floats and other parade vehicles during the festivities leading up to Fat Tuesday.  It takes 2,500 members of the various Galveston Krewes to bring these festivities about, including the numerous parades.

For Galveston to hold such a festive rebel-rousing event like Mardi Gras may not be so surprising.  Going back to the early 1800’s, another kind of rebel rouser had a stronghold on this area, that being Jean Lafitte and his band of pirates who comfortably made the area into their own pirate kingdom called “Campeche”.  Their hellish ways in Galveston came to an end after the US Navy told them in 1821 to basically “get lost, or else” after they attacked an American vessel. These buccaneers left an alleged buried treasure that has yet to be found.

Tossing The Throws at the Krewe of Aquarius Parade

Beads being readied for the parade

Beads being readied for the parade

My Mardi Gras day started just before 11 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, as the float I got to ride on (operated by the Krewe of Babalu) needed its participants to open the many boxes of beads and set them up on the float so we’d be prepared for about 3 miles of onlookers who were looking for beads aplenty over the course of about 90 minutes down Seawall Boulevard.  It runs parallel to and is just a stone’s throw away from the Gulf of Mexico.  A light drizzle had to be dealt with before the parade, but the rain stopped just before the noontime start.

We were surrounded by a myriad of other floats and a constant moving of people as good ol’ Zydeco music blared from one of the nearby floats, helping to pass the time away.  
Once the parade began, I noticed that the streets were lined up with tens of thousands of people who screamed such things as “Gimme beads!” or just “Beads!”  A few had another creative way to get attention by saying, “Help me, I’m a taxpayer!”  Basically four things happen when one throws the beads: they are caught in the air, they hit someone, they hit the ground and break, or they hit the ground and stay intact waiting for someone to claim them.

Great-sounding marching band during the Krewe of Gambrinus parade

Great-sounding marching band during
the Krewe of Gambrinus parade

I enjoyed most throwing the beads to the little children who were in the front of the line.  I noticed that brothers and sisters acted pretty nice about sharing with their siblings. The crowd was constantly being pushed back by Galveston motorcycle cops as their sirens blared out the admonition to not get too close to the floats.  

Catching The Throws at The Krewe of Gambrinus Parade

It seemed as if the Saturday night Krewe of Grambrinus parade was going to be dampened by strong winds and some rain, but the Mardi Gras gods smiled upon us attendees as the weather suddenly turned mild as the first floats came down Seawall Boulevard again.  I was part of the thousands lined up to see colorful floats and many Texas area marching bands add some energetic music flavor to the parade.   I even noticed emergency vehicles from as far away as Santa Fe, New Mexico driving down the parade route.   

I was lucky enough to catch many of the estimated 650,000 beads thrown this particular Valentine’s Day evening.  I was most apt to get the red beads because a friend of mine back in Wyoming wanted some of that color.  It’s not advised to take your eyes off of the floats because when I did a couple of times, I was hit in the face by airborne beads!

People cry for beads at the Krewe of Aquarius parade

People cry for beads at the Krewe of Aquarius parade

Just like the morning parade, motorcycle cops were constantly blaring their sirens and driving between the bead-hungry crowd and the floats.  Some floats had outside walkers that carried barrier bars that ran parallel to the floats to also help keep the bead-seekers at bay.  I heard one cop stopped near me politely tell a rather pushy woman, “If you touch this bike, you’re going to go to jail.”  That was about as aggressive as the people were (that I witnessed).

When I see the kind of insanity of Mardi Gras celebrations from New Orleans on tv, I’m glad that I could participate in a much more calmer festival, where it’s easier for a traveler to deal with.   Now, I know that Mardi Gras involves a lot of nighttime partying and carrying on which I witnessed as I walked back to my hotel, but I’m not really a night life person when I’m on the road.  Yes, I’m like "Grandma Walton", ok?  I was satisfied with being part of both sides of the "throw"!

Next year’s Mardi Gras festivities in Galveston are scheduled to take place February 5-16, 2010.  For more information, go to Mardi Gras! Galveston

Accommodations Recommendation

The beautiful Hotel Galvez

The beautiful Hotel Galvez

I stayed at the 98 year old Hotel Galvez, named after Bernardo de Galvez, who was a Spanish general and colonial governor, who sent explorers in 1786 to chart the area that would eventually be named Galveston Bay after the very man who commissioned them.   The façade of this hotel is quite alluring, built in Spanish Revival architectural style.  It gracefully faces the Gulf of Mexico, separated by only a street and beachfront.   The rich and famous like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart have stayed here as well as three U.S. Presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Guests get adequate work space and high speed internet that’s basically reliable.  The beds are comfortable and the shower heads put out a nice stream of water.  If you dine at their onsite restaurant called Bernardo’s, I recommend their yummy Fisherman’s Stew!

About the author:  Roy A. Barnes writes from southeastern Wyoming and is a frequent contributor to Bootsnall.com.

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